The Pittsburgh Steelers started the game with a shallow and struggling roster. But the AFC leading Baltimore Ravens had a lot of players out as well. As the game progressed, the Ravens depth faltered while the Steelers got big plays from their stars, and a lot of solid play from unexpected sources.
The Steelers entered the day with their 3rd left guard starting. Kevin Dotson and J.C. Hassenauer were out, and 3 snaps into the game, B.J. Finney was out as well. John Leglue was undrafted out of Tulane in 2019, signed with the Broncos, then the Saints, but never saw the field and was mostly a practice squad player. The same was true when he joined the Steelers in 2020, and through all the offensive line turmoil, he was never asked to play. This year he was on the Steelers’ practice squad again, with three backup interior lineman in front of him.
Anyone who watched the Steelers win over the Ravens can tell you the young man stepped up, embodying Mike Tomlin’s “Next Man Up” mantra in his NFL debut. Leglue was a significant part of the Steelers offense finding life in this game. What the future holds for the 25 year-old, second-year player is anyone’s guess, but he played great in a big game and a tough spot.
Najee Harris played all but two snaps this week and saw the 5th most touches of his young career. Benny Snell played the two snaps Harris was out and gained 13 yards in those two snaps. The Steelers won this week, but the workload for Najee Harris is something we will continue to monitor.
Another interesting snap count belongs to Chase Claypool. Claypool played his second fewest snaps of the season, trailing Ray-Ray McCloud in snaps but still coming second to Diontae Johnson in production, and Claypool had several key catches in the game. It is tempting to think of this as a demotion for his comments about music being played at practice, but in Claypool’s three games against the Ravens he hasn’t played a high percentage of snaps, and yet has 148 yards and a TD in those games and has yet to lose to the Ravens.
Most of the other offensive snaps are the usual guys at this point, but it is worth pointing out the only active offensive players to not see a snap on offense were Kalen Ballage, Chaz Green and Mason Rudolph, as several players made the field for exactly one snap.
One of those single snap players, as one snap count fans will recognize as the most important snap in any Steeler game, was Minkah Fitzpatrick who received one snap after far too many games without one. Fitzpatrick’s victory formation exploits speak for themselves, as the team remains undefeated with a 9-0 record when Fitzpatrick sees at least one snap on offense.
Joe Schobert returned to the 100% snap club on defense for his second appearance, joining regulars Cameron Sutton and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who have played all the defensive snaps 8 and 9 times this season respectively.
The defensive backfield saw a lot of turnover this week as James Pierre, who had been starting in place of Joe Haden lost his starting job to Akhello Witherspoon, who before Week 12 against Cincinnati had given up 100 yards and a touchdown in 24 snaps on defense. He played better against the Bengals, and stepped up big against the Ravens. While largely facing Marquise Brown, he made some big tackles and looked solid in coverage, rewarding Mike Tomlin’s patience with a player that almost all of Steeler Nation would have cut after the awful 61-yard touchdown he gave up in Week 2.
Not only did James Pierre lose his starting job to Witherspoon, but his pre-Haden injury role as dime back was taken from him as well and given to Justin Layne, who played well for the nine snaps he was on the field. While it is a significant setback for the young corner, the example of both Witherspoon and Layne in this game are evidence enough that he can bounce back. He played his usual good game on special teams, the demotion didn’t affect his play there.
While Joe Schobert played every snap with Robert Spillane inactive, he was a major target for the Ravens offense, especially early in the game while Devin Bush looked better than he has so far this season. He’s still not playing well, but this game was much closer to the line than previous ones for Bush.
T.J. Watt returned from the Reserve/COVID-19 list in time to play this game, and, unlike Week 12, looked much better. While he played a usual amount of snaps, it stood out to me that every time I noticed Watt jogging or “giving up” on a play, that term is extremely relative, not accusing Watt of anything here at all, he would be off the field for the next couple snaps. It was good to see Watt manage his snap count to stay as explosive as he could be for the snaps he was in the game. Watt made a huge difference in this game, and while the Steelers are 0-5-1 in games Watt gets hurt, is out of the lineup, or the game he returns from injury, they are now 6-0 this season when Watt is truly healthy.
I said it before the Cincinnati game, you can tell whether Watt is healthy or not just by looking at the final score. That’s a rare level of impact in football, but T.J. Watt on this current Steelers team is that guy.
Cameron Heyward playing less than 80% of the snaps is a good thing, as it means Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin are able to trust the rest of the defensive line to not fall apart when Heyward leaves the field. Mantravious Adams made his Steeler debut, and played well. His 34 snaps are the third most he has played in his NFL career, and as well as he held up in the middle he will likely play a decent amount more this season.
The Steelers rotated a good amount in their defensive front, with Henry Mondeaux, Taco Charlton, Derek Tuszka and Isaiahh Loudermilk playing significant snaps.
The Steelers depth stepped up at Heinz Field this Sunday and towards the end of the game, when the Ravens depth was being stretched and exposed, the Steelers depth proved to be better, and that let the Steelers star players take over and deliver the win.
Whether that can be a recipe for success the rest of the season, or if we just have to settle for what is likely one last Ben Roethlisberger victory over the Ravens at Heinz Field, it was a great game. And one that will be remembered years from now.